Altering 101: Free-Handing, Composition, and Build-Up

By Naomi Busard

Hello fellow artists, magic players and the occasional lost and confused visitor. Today, I would like to talk with you about some of the things that are important when working on a magic card. A short word about myself: my name is Naomi, I'm a casual Magic: the Gathering player who enjoys tinkering with decks and altering cards. I also have a heavy thing for Ocarina of Time, so if you like that game, give me a poke. We'll get along just fine!

For today's article, I will use one card as an example: Treasure Cruise being altered with an artwork by the great Shaun Tan. The picture I chose is the cover of probably one of his best-known illustrated works: The Rabbits. Now, the first thing I would like to talk about is resonance and relevance of the chosen artwork. There are a couple of factors as to why I chose this specific artwork for this card.  

Shaun Tan Rabbits


Originally, I started out with the idea of doing a land panorama: an Island, a dual land (probably Tranquil Cove) and a Plains. I would divide the cards as follows: on the Plains, you would have the rabbits, on the dual land the ship, where the art has both water and lands, and the sea part would be a personal mock up further extending the art.  

Then a fellow EDH player put forward the much simpler idea of painting it on a Treasure Cruise, which immediately appealed to me. Partially because, well, it was less work, and partially because the artwork was so very fitting for Treasure Cruise.  

If you haven't read the picture book yet (so worth getting it – gorgeous artwork), I will summarize the story for you. The Rabbits recounts the invasion of Australia by the Brits, who destroyed much of the culture and habitat of the original inhabitants and fauna. Some of you may have heard of the Rabbit Proof Fence, a measure against the destruction the foreign, imported rabbits caused to the nature of Australia. It seems fitting that the long-eared animals were chosen to represent the British invaders in this book.  

The historical content behind this artwork and the “drawback” effect of Treasure Cruise both collide in an elegant fashion: you gain some, you lose some. Drawing three cards is neat, but you have to sacrifice seven cards out of your graveyard.

Another reason that makes Treasure Cruise fitting, is the blue and yellow color palette which reminds of the skies, the sea and the riches of gold, waiting to be plundered. And the big ship that you can't ignore, even if you tried, does help evoke the adventurous feeling of an expedition for treasures, yarr!  In short, I really like it when altered card has depth and has a connection with the card title and/or theme – everything seems to fit. I've decided, Treasure Cruise it is! So what now? Now, we prepare the card for the artwork, of course! I set up a homemade wet palette with the right colors. By the way, if you haven't used a wet palette before, please give it a chance. I tried it once and since then never went back. Your paints will stay wet forever if you keep the moisture level right. I think the longest I used the same paints on a wet palette was 4 days in a row and never once they dried out.



Back to the basic layering now. Most alter artists will tell you the same thing on how they get started: put up a base layer of white or gray, then work up from there. I use Golden Fluid acrylic paints, and for this alter, I've used a light Titanium White and Carbon Black mix for the base layer, and for the other colors I used Primary Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Primary Cyan, Burnt Umber Light and Cadmium Red (medium hue). Determining the blues in an alter can be tricky; I bought both Primary Cyan and Cerulean Blue Deep as they have different hues (becomes very clear when you mix in a bit of white). Cerulean Blue is particularly hard to mix, as well as gives completely different purples than the Primary Blue when mixed with red. The hues in this art from the Rabbits are tied better into the clear, uncomplicated tones of Primary Blue, so that's why I picked that one. For the other colors, I prefer these basic reds and yellow because they both have a better opacity than most reds and yellows, and have about the right tone to mix in most other hues, making them an excellent basic color palette for me. Learning to detect what colors you need to pick for your mixes is one of the hardest parts, as is getting your mix just right. There are several pages that can help with this, but these are two I found useful for my purposes.   


Before I apply the base layer, I need to think over how I'm going to fit my alter into the frame of the card. I'm making a gamble here; I will put the art on it sideways (which is rather unusual), because it's a sorcery and will either be in your hand or in the graveyard, where it doesn't really matter what direction it's faced. Treasure Cruise is a pretty well-known card, with a simple effect, therefore I'll only let the name and casting cost stay visible. Now, I want to prevent paint from staining these two areas, and usually people will say, just paint around it and clean up the edges with a toothpick. That works, but I also found that sometimes you can scratch the surface when you stress it too much, paint seeps into the card itself, it becomes a pain to work with and I don't want this.  I have a very useful little something to prevent this, called masking fluid. I use Schmincke Masking Fluid, that can be used both for light acrylics and watercolors. You drop it on the card is the areas you want to keep clean, let it fully dry (5-10 minutes, don't put it on too thick), then when you finish painting over it, just peel it off again. Your card will be pristine under it! Peeling it off is relatively easy and while you can't block letters, you can still work with it just fine.  Just use your finger or a toothpick to scratch away the solidified gel. As always when trying something new, use it on a test card before you go to work with it. Since I live in Belgium, I use other brands than most of the people who'll read this, but I'm sure any decent art supplies store will have a similar product to this.  

So, I have blocked in the title and the casting cost, and painted a gray base coat over it. What's next? Next is building up the background. You see, there's a certain order to how you best paint a card. Almost always, you will want to start working on your background; lining out your figures and working on both the background is just way more tedious and not worth the extra time.  Basically, you work from the background into the foreground. In this card, You first want to get the sky in the background perfect. At the same time you can work on the sea and the beach, since these layers don't really overlap or mingle a any point. Next will be the clouds, then you can paint the ship in full detail, and only then, finally, the rabbits, who are in front. When I finish the sky, I remove the masking fluid that's over the casting cost and card name to block them in properly.   

Rabbits layering.jpg

Another important question: will I use the carbon transfer technique or will I freehand this piece? I mostly use carbon transfer when the art needs to be very precise, like with my Art Nouveau Sol Ring or with my Wind Waker plains. In this case I decide against it; I will need to make adjustments to the composition anyway and it won't change much to this work if a few details aren't in place. Using a pencil, I make some rough lines of what goes where, make a mistake, then try again. Better. Dynamics do a lot and for this card, I want all of the majestic ship and all of its sails to fit into the card frame. I use some basic color mixes to mark these layers and then get to work on the sky. It's surprisingly difficult to get the vivid colors just right; there are tones of light blue, yellow, green and turquoise in the sky, as well as a certain mix of blue than I later define as needing a tight splash of red and black to get that tone just right.  

For the blending of the colors up right in the sky, I mostly use my big filbert brush and my angle shader brush, since these allow for easier blending and the color scheme isn't too complicated. For other parts of the sky, I used fine point, small brushes and my fingertips to mix and mash the colors together. Don't worry if you paint over some of the other base layers of the ship and beach, that's
something that will get covered later anyway.

Next I move on to the clouds , for which I use a mix of white, ochre, a lot of yellow and a tad bit of red. It's a very rich color and the structure is also full of detail. I use a small filbert brush, making round, swirly strokes for the base layer of the clouds. Patience is key; you don't want to paint over your layers and then remove still-wet paint, resulting in an odd gap in your colors. For the lightest shadows, I use my main mix but without the white and with Burnt Umber Light. For the darker shadows, I use a watered down mix of black, blue and red to make a very faint dark purple that I dab on using my fingers and the point of my Filbert brush.  

I rarely shadow using black since it's often too sharp of a color difference, and it this case the reference clearly state the shadows in the clouds are brownish. Try to change the angle of your fingers when you dab the colors every so often, the patterns will look better!  

So then, onto the next stage. The boat is pretty much the same colors as the clouds. I use a middle tone that resembles lemon in tone, and both lighten up and darken from there. For the ship masts, I carefully draw lines using a protractor (seriously, get one. So handy for altering!) and a fineliner (Copic Multiliner SP 0.03) and then work my way up from there. I first paint some of the outlines of the sails, then patiently add layer after layer to give them their bright, spotted hues.  This is a very tricky part; the surreal composition makes it so certain sails are set up like kites, the curve of the sails varying depending on where they're fastened.  And to make it all fit in the tiny card frame, I have to make some adjustments so everything fits and the composition doesn't become too cluttered or confusing. There's only so much you can do on a tiny surface. Sometimes you will lose detail, most of the time you will have to make adjustments to the art or the composition. I admit, this artwork is especially tricky because it's so wickedly detailed, but it still requires some creativity to make everything fit into its place.  Basic rule: if you can't recognize it on that scale, don't paint it.

I worked on both the dune, the clouds and the sea just now, so really all that's left is the most prominent part in the painting: the rabbits. I need a contrasting base layer to work out these figures so I'll opt for gray. I trace the beginning of the forms very lightly with pencil (careful! Press too hard and you can scrape paint away!) then fill it in with gray paint, then work up from that. Pencil can be gummed away and leaves room for error, so it's a safe option. It took some trial and error since the legs of the rabbits are placed uneven and their outfits are more complicated than you would think.  

For example, the outfit on the red-clothed rabbit on the right has arrows, buttons, bullet strings and other decorations on it. The rabbits have tiny yellow eyes with a pupil and all of them have a curled tail and a lot of details in their design. All of this required very fine and tedious work with a 0/3 brush. On top of that, it's very warm here so the paint dries almost instantly – no other way than to be quick and precise!  

Just like before I worked from the background to the foreground, starting with the bunnies in the back and the shadows and then finishing up the details that stick out in the foreground, like the decoration on the captain's hat.  

You know who's being my best friend through this alter? Mr. Bamboo Skewer. I use a bamboo skewer instead of a toothpick since it's sturdier and allows for a better control since it's longer than a toothpick. Additionally, you can use it with a bit of water to very carefully scrape away the paint that you just got onto the card – if you are patient and gentle enough, you'll only scrape the freshest paint away. I used Mr Skewer to correct the rabbit legs, to make the birds in the air thinner, the writing on the captain's uniform smaller etc. I can definitely recommend it, but it takes a bit of practice.  

Finally, I have been leaving the name of the card alone for a while, but as a finishing touch, I use Iridescent Bronze (Fine) to make small patches of gold around the title. Unless the light falls flat on
it, the color isn't too flashy. I really like this paint and the card was basically screaming for some gold at one point or another.  Usually I'd craft my signature in one of the corners, but with this Treasure Cruise, I feel like it would disturb the overall composition - so I just don't. So, without further ado, here's the finished result:


I'm very proud of this alter and it was a joy working on it. It's not a good artwork for beginners and even advanced painters might have some difficulties with it since it's a tricky composition. I made several mistakes while working on this, just so you know. What makes a card like this look better than “good” or average” is persistence: every detail that you add to it makes it richer and more beautiful. Don't be afraid to go a little bit further when you think it's already done. You might have missed something, or you might be underestimating yourself.  Thank you for reading my article, I hope you enjoyed following through this and learned something from following through the making of this alter. If you have any more questions, feel free to contact me on my page !


Naomi has always had a thing for the geeky side of life. Brought up reading fantasy books, watching all kinds of movies and developing an undying love for Ocarina of Time, she's sort of a geek-of-all trades. Been a cosplayer in the past, she now mainly focuses on playing video games and MTG, MTG card altering and writing different kind of media. If you have any questions about her hobbies, she'll be happy to help you out.

Kris Nash